Talking with Chef Talbot About His Culinary Outlook and Inspiration
Meet Sam Talbot — cofounder of Beyond Type 1, philanthropist, executive chef, restaurateur, reality television star, and a mentor to kids and adults alike for living healthy. He was acclaimed “fan favorite” on the second season of Top Chef and voted one of the Sexiest Men Alive by People. He’s a busy guy to say the least. Enthusiastic, affable, and simply down-to-earth, Sam Talbot has a zest for life that’s contagious and downright fun. Apart from building our organization, we wanted to know what he’s been up to lately. And not surprisingly, it’s an awful lot.
BT1: What has inspired you recently?
ST: Right now I’m finishing my second book 100% Real with Sam Talbot. It’s about finding better food alternatives and making amazing food. It’s like what you find in the “Pantry Swap — Chef Sam Talbot’s Healthy Alternatives.”
BT1: “Real”, as in “real food”?
ST: Yes, nothing processed. All real food. The book takes a lot of time. I’ve poured my heart into it and after I turn it over to the editor thinking it’s done, I’ve come to find out I have to write another draft. It’s a long process! Time Inc. is the publisher, and they’re doing a great job.
Then there’s Beyond type 1 — it’s like my last name. I even have it tattooed on my hand. I couldn’t be more proud of my partners and what they’re doing. I’ve also been working on my restaurant — Pretty Southern — which is my brand new baby. Between the book, the restaurant, and Beyond Type 1, that’s where my passion is.
BT1: We heard the new restaurant is in Brooklyn!
ST: Yes. Brooklyn is where I started my career at age 23, with the Williamsburg Café that opened in 2003, so there’s nostalgia there. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get Pretty Southern up and running — I just demoed the place. I’ve also handpicked the people involved in it.
BT1: What’s the concept behind it?
ST: It’s elevated southern food. All of the best soul food — rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, baked beans, green bean casserole and hash browns — but made with healthier alternatives like rice flour and coconut milk. It won’t weigh you down and make you want to just take a nap afterward.
BT1: You grew up in Charleston, SC and Charlotte, NC. How have these places influenced your cooking?
ST: Southern cooking is in my blood and it’s what I know, but I’ve never really claimed it in New York because it didn’t seem as healthy. Soul food — with all of its fat and cream — is a recipe for gaining weight fast. Southern food is some of the best food, but it characteristically has ingredients that aren’t as healthy. It’s about going back to my roots, but doing it with a different state of mind. It’s about taking the classics and elevating them and being more sensible. You don’t need a gallon of sweet tea and a roll of paper towels to eat southern food — at least not mine.
BT1: You have the motto “Cook Nice.” Can you explain what that means to you?
ST: “Cook nice” is about thinking outside of your comfort zones; it’s about making the effort of going to your markets and finding what’s local or “green” and sustainable.
BT1: It’s about being a responsible consumer?
ST: Exactly! It’s also about knowing what’s going into your body. That extends to even what you wear (as in fair trade clothing). You don’t have to be crazy about it though. As a diabetic, you might feel like there’s a black cloud following you around, in that you feel limited in what you can eat, but you can go into a normal grocery store and buy Teriyaki sauce. If you think about it more, there are better options though. It’s about being aware of those options. If you live in Charlotte, North Carolina, you aren’t pigeonholed into eating buttermilk biscuits.
BT1: You recently participated in a roast of Tom Colicchio and more importantly, you went with 50 chefs from 40 states to march on Capitol Hill to tell Congress to save the school lunch program and insist on a higher quality of food for our kids. This is obviously a cause that is important to you. Can you tell us what the issues surrounding school lunches are and what the group is proposing to congress?
ST: I’ve gone to Capitol Hill many times for a lot of different reasons. More recently, my good friend Tom Colicchio and I went and stood in front of state senators. We told them our feelings on why school lunches are important — not just for kids that are happy and healthy, but also for kids with Type 1. We have a civic responsibility. When you go into a doctor, you trust him and what he prescribes to you. It should be the same with school lunches and any restaurant. The food should be clean and healthy. Raising the quality of the food has huge benefits. Some of the many reasons we gave them included improving national defense as well as making good grades.
I’ve also gone to congress for GMO labeling. China, Russia, and Thailand have it, but we don’t? It’s uncanny that we don’t have labeling as a world powerhouse. We aren’t saying GMOs are cancerous; but we have the right to know as consumers if they’re in a given product.
Snap Benefits (food stamps) and the Farm Bill are other things I’ve gone to congress for. I have friends who started Wholesome Wave and what they’re doing is matching food stamps if people go to farmer’s markets instead. So basically you get double the allowance for a healthier food option.
BT1: Apart from being in the public eye for advocacy, you’ve also starred on Top Chef (season two) where you were voted “fan favorite.” What was that experience like for you?
ST: I did Top Chef when I was 27 and it was a life changing opportunity. It came at a really good time for me. It was wild, especially as a diabetic. There was no rhyme or reason to the schedule. You’d go to bed at midnight and they’d wake you up at 3 a.m. in the morning with air horns, so you could make sushi for a top chef. You felt like you were under attack from a terrorist with cameras and lights in your face. It was intense. Sometimes my blood sugar would go really low; I’d use Snapple drinks to correct it. The production assistants noticed this and started calling me “Snapples” because of it. They also noticed when I was going down — I wasn’t myself; I’d be real sluggish. They’d say, “Snapples is going down!” and they’d get me another one. They still write on Facebook, “Hey, Snapples, what’s up?” [He laughs]
After Top Chef, I could cook for a ton of people and a lot of cool things happened. I opened the Surf Lodge in Montauk, NY, and almost overnight, it became a cult classic. Then I opened Imperial No. Nine at the Mondrian in SoHo [NYC] and it was all about sustainable seafood. Then about a year ago, I decided I wanted to start a foundation that was different from the other diabetes foundations. Something that was rogue, hip, sexy, cool and hadn’t been done before. From 2015 to present, it has really been about Beyond Type 1, the new restaurant and my book. If I’m not cooking, nothing really makes sense. My life is all about cooking and educating people who are interested. It goes hand-in-hand and if you trust your food and know you’re serving it clean, you’ll feel really good about it.
BT1: What’s going on with you and Henry Jensen? (Henry is an eight-year-old who also has Type 1.) We heard that you have the same diaversary and will be going to a Riding On Insulin snowboarding workshop to celebrate?
ST: It’s scary that Henry is eight and I’m 38, and we get excited about the same things — eating fisheyes and snowboarding. We met on Instagram and his mom stalked me (relentlessly). We almost had to have the cops intervene … [He laughs]. No seriously, when I first met Henry, he had low blood sugar and wouldn’t talk to me, but since then, we’ve been cool bros. He surprised me with a snowboarding trip with Riding on Insulin. And Henry and I are going to do some really cool things together — we’re determined to share our story and make a difference and mostly have a good time. He loves to cook, too, so we’re naturally friends. He’s great at cooking as well. He doesn’t let Type 1 slow him down either.
There’s a time I’ll never forget. It was about a year ago and Henry had a scary low (below 20) at school that required his first glucagon. He was hysterically crying and his mom couldn’t calm him down. She texted me and I called him and said, “You are going to be okay, Henry. We are strong, we are going to fight this together. Okay?” It meant a lot to me that I could understand where he was coming from while being the person to help him.
BT1: That’s so moving! You’ve been a tremendous mentor to both kids and adults in terms of diabetes and healthy cooking. Was your grandmother Beatrice a big influence in your life and career path?
ST: She’s the first person I ever cooked with and it was just simple stuff like scrambled eggs. There was a little poultry and dairy market that we went to together when I was a kid. I’ll never forget it. I’m starting an apron line called Sam & Beatrice in honor of her. My mom is also a wonderful cook. She likes to cook Asian food and I like to fall back on those influences. My grandmother cooks more simply. I use Tamari sauce (a typically gluten-free substitute for soy sauce) in my southern food. This sauce usually has nothing to with southern food; but it has something to do with it now. It’s not only better for diabetics, but it’s better for everyone as it has less sodium. It’s not just about counting carbs when you’re a diabetic, you’re all in. You have to consider everything. Too much sodium can lead to heart complications.
BT1: Do you have a favorite garnish?
ST: I like to finish with chili vinegar.
BT1: Why chili vinegar?
ST: The same reason you add lemon. It elevates and brightens a dish. It’s acid, salt and a little heat. It can really wake up any meal.
BT1: You have this awesome lemon ricotta pancake recipe. Why does lemon and ricotta work in pancakes?
ST: Ricotta in pancakes is a dish literally sent from the Gods. Lemon is needed because ricotta is creamy and fatty, and lemon cuts it and balances it. Ricotta is an emulsifier. Think of cream cheese versus ricotta cheese. The latter is lighter and fluffier and adds that element to the pancake.
More about Sam and his work on his website!